John Carter A Year Later: Does Oz the Great and Powerful shed light on what might have been?

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Ah, John Carter. The pain.  What a difference a year makes.

One year ago this weekend, Disney released Andrew Stanton’s John  Carter to a disappointing $31M US Opening Weekend,  with the critics decidedly mixed and audiences giving it a B+ rating.

Meanwhile, today, Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful is going to open somewhere in the $80M++ range with the critics decidedly mixed and audiences giving it a B+ rating.

So here we have two fantasy adventure films with very similar profiles in terms of critics and audience response — one, John Carter, The Greatest Flop in Cinema History, and the other, Oz, about to become a certified blockbuster, likely earning in excess of $1B worldwide.

Explanations, anyone?

Let’s go through a “Tale of the Tape” comparison.  We’ll use two broad categories — THE ACTUAL FILMS, which refers to the complete film and how audiences and critics respond to it, and THE IDEA OF THE FILM, which refers to the market image of the film going into opening weekend.

We’ll start with THE ACTUAL FILMS.  A disclaimer — this is NOT an attempt to rate the artistic merit of the two films, rather it’s a look at how audiences and critics responded to the two films.  That’s all.  Discussion of artistic merit is for another post, after I’ve seen Oz.


1. Top Critics Response: Slight Advantage, John Carter at 36% to 30%, according to Rotten Tomatoes.

2. Overall Critics Response: Statistically even at 59% to Oz (and dropping) and John Carter (57% on opening day.)

3. Audience Response:  Statistically even.  Both are at 7.1 on IMDB ratings as of opening day.  Oz is currently at 80% on Rotten Tomatoes while John Carter was at 77% on opening day. Not a lot of daylight between them on this one.

OVERALL — Call it a tie.

(Note: These are opening day figures vs opening day figures.  John Carter slipped downward on the critics charts, as do most films in this range, as the bandwagon effect was felt, ending up at 51% overall.  Oz will likely do the same and in any event, the purpose here is to compare them as of opening day.)


The following only touches on the biggest elements of the “idea” factor.  I did not follow the Oz promotion the way I followed John Carter, so I am limiting it to things that are either obvious or can be quantified.

1. Branding: Oz vs Barsoom.  Oz is better known and so there is immediate identification.  And it’s in the title, so there is a branding advantage derived from that.  Both are kind of quaint and classic feeling in a steampunk kind of way.   Advantage is clearly to Oz — an advantage that is greater than it might otherwise have been because of the exceptionally bland and confusing “John Carter” title.  And any negatives associated with Oz being kind of old-fashioned are offset by the “cool factor” that the cast (read on) gives it.

2. The Cast.  Remember we are talking specifically about the idea of the film in the minds of potential moviegoers–not the actual merit of the performances.  Oz has James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams .  John Carter has Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, and Mark Strong.  (Or maybe after you get past Kitsch and Collins you select two others.)  Any way you slice it, Oz wins big on this one.  It is configured to be attractive to moviegoers, particularly the critical 15-24 set, in ways that far outdistance John Carter.  Is this a failure on the John Carter side?   Remember, we’re talking about the idea of the film here, not the film itself. This is not about whether Taylor Kitsch or Lynn Collins did a good job, it’s about whether they are a marketing asset in the way that the cast of Oz is a marketing asset.  And if John Carter is at a disadvantage, why?  Is it just because Andrew Stanton didn’t manage the cast design issue as adroitly as Sam Raimi did?  Or is it because Andrew Stanton didn’t have the benefit of a savvy senior producer or strong studio head?  Casting decisions normally involve concurrence between the director, the producer, and the studio.  In the case of John Carter, it appears to have been left more or less entirely to the discretion of a director who had achieved success in his previous films without any cast at all (Wall-E in particular).  Anyway — big advantage to Oz, not in terms of actual performance — but in terms of market appeal of the cast.

3. The Trailer.  The trailer is the single most important piece of the “Idea” puzzle.  And the trailer filters down into the TV spots, etc.   The main trailer for Oz has the following Like/Dislike ratio on Youtube.  6,453/226 or 28/1.  That ratio of 28/1 compares favorably to other hit movies like The Hunger Games and The Avengers.  Trailer 2 is 4,645/162, which is also 28/1.  By contrast, the John Carter Trailer 1 has a Like/Dislike ratio of 1981/165 for a 12/1 ratio, which is very low (bad).  The second trailer which was the main theatrical trailer (the ape jumping extravaganza) is 3,956/310, for a ratio of 13/1, which is very low (bad). So it would be safe to say that the trailers for Oz have been substantially more effective.  Also — and not to pat ourselves on the back, but just to point out that the material was there to create more popular trailers, our John Carter Fan Trailer 1 is 1,344/15 for a ratio of 90/1, and our John Carter Fan Trailer 2 (Heritage) is 864/26 for a ratio of 33/1.   So I would argue that it’s not as if the John Carter material didn’t have the potential to yield a popular trailer.  Advantage (big one) Oz.

4. The Poster:  It’s interesting in that both of these movies represent a bit of a steampunk vibe, and thus the Oz poster, which embraces that, is a bit old-fashioned in a way that seems to work pretty well.  The John Carter poster, which avoids showing much at all, is generally regarded to have been a disaster.  I haven’t had a chance to go searching for actual poster reviews, so I’ll just put them both here and let them speak for themselves.

Well, which poster intrigues? John Carter is meant to be intriguing with the silhouette not showing much, but that’s a big part of the problem — it doesn’t show enough to generate much of a reaction at all. The Oz poster, by contrast, shows adventure; it shows romance (three beautiful women and a guy? Duh), it shows danger, threat — and is lush and filled with atmospher eye candy in the way that the John Carter Mondo poster did up to a point — although in a “teaser” way only. Anyway, advantage (a big one) to Oz.

4. Perception of Budget: I’m putting this in here because in the case of John Carter, so much was written about the budget that it became a big part of the “Idea of the Film” . . . . and not in a good way.  The budget of $250m was so high that it translated into “WTF Were They Thinking” and fed a lot of press hostility that influenced the narrative in a huge way.  Oz, with an “average” blockbuster budget of $200M, has not been burdened with any of this — budget is not seen as an issue.  The budget of John Carter positioned the film for failure both in an absolute financial sense, by raising the bar of how high it had to perform to be successful, and in the the promotion as well because of the “what were they thinking” factor it created.  Advantage, Oz.

Other factors that could be talked about would include Sam Raimi (experienced, studio savvy, live action director) vs Andrew Stanton (Pixar genius on his first live action outing). . . . .and the brand synchonicity (Disney and Oz) vs brand misalignment (Disney and Barsoom). . . . . and more, but I’m not trying to be encyclopedic here, just hitting the high points.

The point is, in terms of the films themselves they are pretty close by every objective measure of critical and audience response.  But in terms of the idea of the film, every advantage goes to Oz, and that is how you get from a 30M opening weekend to an $80M opening weekend. (Some are saying $90M.)

Ah, John Carter — what might have been.



  • Jumping into a conversation a few days late here, but I’ve been away from computers and am just now catching up with the JCF threads.

    MCR noted as an aside to the discussion – “the lackluster visuals of Carter probably did present problems to poster designers. After all the dull dusty Barsoom doesn’t catch the eye compared to bright Oz.”

    There is a lot more of Barsoom that could have been featured in the film, and as far as what was featured, there could have been a lot “more” of it. I remember that Cinesite Visual Effects Supervisor Susan Rowe mentioned in an interview that several times she suggested to Andrew Stanton several times how they might do something bigger or “more” of it, and he shook his head and said something to the effect of “remember, it’s about the story”. So it seems that Stanton was reluctant to go bigger on the designs he chose to use in the film, AND didn’t choose to show much of the spectrum of Barsoom’s locations and scenery in the film in the first place. That was in keeping with his realistic “National Geographic documentary” approach to the production design, and yes, it unfortunately didn’t give the marketers very much to work with. The Mondo poster demonstrated that even the visual palette that Stanton chose could have been used more aggressively and intriguingly – but then we get into the “preserve the mystery” issue (which was a noble concept by itself, apart from its actual results.)

  • Disney has obviously capitalized on the immense popularity of MGM’s 1939 THE WIZARD OF OZ. Realize that the MGM film was an enormously expensive production with a budget of $2,000,000. You can find a meaningful computation of the buying power of that money on MGM’s WIZARD performformed in its original release, because it was conceived and marketed as a children’s film. Children certainly went to see it, but at reduced box office prices. MGM’S WIZARD did not become recognized as a perennial classic until CBS television showed it on television in the 1950’s, where it became an annual event. Like the 1933 KING KONG (a success in its original release) and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (a box office failure in its orignal release), it was the annual television broadcasts beginning in 1956 that insured the status of WIZARD.

    With hindsight, it becomes apparent that Disney had no idea of how to market JOHN CARTER in its original release, and it’s doubtful that they ever had any idea about it at all. The only chance that JOHN CARTER ever had was if an audience discovered it, an unlikely possiblity in this current day and age.

  • “You’re being too nice. I’m nervous. What’s going on?”

    It’s to create a false sense of security. HAHAHAHAHA!

    Sorry. Not I figured it might be a good idea to give a warning since anytime I criticize the infallible Andrew for anything-in this case his lacking casting decisions and bizarre choice to avoid using his name for promotional activies and Disney’s agreeing with him-someone gets their Woola panties in a bunch. Hope that explains it 🙂

  • Nikki Finke mentioned how Disney is making sure to run a sizable TV ad campaign for Oz…”After months of bad buzz behind the film, Disney now is confident Oz was a risk worth taking – but is taking no chances either.

    The studio has ensured its TV ads for Oz are omnipresent as part of a $100M marketing spend and mirror the colorful chaos of those for its 2010 Alice In Wonderland mega-hit.”

    And for “I just saw john carter for the third time” — your Miami critic is talking out of their ass. I saw the film today and the CGI works well – in fact without it, the 3D wouldn’t have been as effective. This is probably the best 3D film I’ve seen in its use. The reviews I’ve read today are ignoring fundamentals that have to be there for what would be the “future” classic movie, along with what they could legally use and what’s unique to this story. I did like John Carter better, but this passed my tests for future DVD purchase so it’s a good movie. Once again, many movie critics expressing displeasure are idiots.

  • The OZ poster is pretty much a no brainer and what John Carter should of had. Don’t hide what is in your sock drawer, no one will know if they want to go or not if you do that.

  • MCR wrote:

    But I’ll go contrarian on the rest:

    But . . . . but . . . . but . . . .

    Then you proceed to reinforce all the points I made. Where the contariness?? At a minimum I should expect you to say I didn’t go far enough on these points. You’re being too nice. I’m nervous. What’s going on? 😉

  • I’ll skip the actual films since I have not seen Oz yet and don’t know if the critics are right or not. But I’ll go contrarian on the rest:

    1. Branding. In this case Oz is the easier sell since people know the history of it, or at least have seen The Wizard of Oz, so there is a curiosty factor there and Disney knows it.

    2. Casting. Again Oz because people know who the actors are. In fact before James Franco Sam Raimi wanted Robert Downey Jr and when he dropped out approached Johnny Depp so Raimi and the producers did want a familiar face. By comparison Stanton was so determined to find an unknown to fill his “damage goods’ bill and he became locked on Kitsch since he felt he played that well on Friday Night Lights. In that case Disney or the producers needed to step in and either try to talk Stanton into going after another actor or go the same route as Richard Donner’s Superman and get bigger names, not just British actors from cancelled HBO shows.

    3. The trailer is interesting in that all of them for OZ tells you who made this movie. They play up Raimi’s past with Spider-Man and that the producer made Alice in Wonderland. Again chalk it up to Stanton’s whims of not wanting people to think this was a kids movie for failing there. Not even a “From Oscar Winning Director” tag like Disney’s earlier trailer for The Lone Ranger which at least might have carried some weight.

    4. The posters for OZ have all been bright and playing up the spectacle and cast whereas John Carter at best played up Taylor Kitsch’s bare torso and not much else. Now that would have been fine of it was a Channing Tatum film but here? Not so much but-and this goes off the debate-the lackluster visuals of Carter probably did present problems to poster designers. After all the dull dusty Barsoom doesn’t catch the eye compared to bright Oz.

    So there’s my response. And honestly, Bob, enough with the Star Wars-Iger link. That said in a story that Bloomberg ran about Disney’s aquisition of Star Wars, reportedly there was a comment about how Steve Jobs would call up Iger and tell him his last movie was awful. So take solace in that.

  • I think the posters say it all really. Disney has put the work in to promoting Oz, it didn’t make the effort for JC.

    “OZ is a typical Disney “family film”, designed to appeal to a wide audience. John Carter is not a family film and was not marketed that way.”

    Really? JC *not* a family film? I agree it wasn’t marketed that way, but my kids (girls aged 6 & 9) loved it, and they are not easily pleased. I always said that better posters, some lunch boxes, role play toys/action figures and a McDonalds Happy Meal tie in and JC would’ve performed totally differently.

    As you say what might’ve been……

  • After seeing the trailers and all the FX laden images on the screen i’m not in a hurry to see this. Our reviewer for the Miami Herald, Rene Rodriguez gave it one star. He lamented the overuse of CGI and it’s horrid lure to big name directors and i have to agree. I’m not a film maker and probably never will be, but this FX crutch is ruining film making. That this film cost less with so much more CGI than John Carter also tells me the quality will be off, not that the audience cares or will even notice it.
    I’m in a unique position as a guy who watches films, once hung out with a family of stunt people and a love for old fashioned film making that actually moves people. Being an artist I can almost always see the splice from live to CGI and that pretty much ruins it for me. I like action films. This is an action film burden with too many FX. I guess they learned little from the fist Wizard of Oz. In an effort to make the FX the star they often fail to realize it’s the spice, not the substance.

  • You know it was revealed yesterday in a Bloomberg News article that Iger and Lucas were talking as early as 2011 about his acquiring Star Wars. Iger totally dismissed this movie as a movie for Disney and as a potential franchise, which does explain a lot about the lackluster, and lack of, a proper promotion for the film.

  • Steve wrote:

    Hundreds of thousands of parents grew up being subjected to The Wizard of Oz at least once a year during the Thanksgiving weekend for the past 50 years. Many of them probably want their own children to have that same ‘wow’ experience and are hoping that a new movie about Oz will allow them to deliver that to their kids.

    Hundreds (note the lack of “of thousands”) of parents grew up reading the Burroughs tales and some small percentage of them wanted their kids to have the same experience by taking them to the movies instead of handing them the books.

    Stupid parents.

    Agreed, except I would make it “tens of millions of parents grew up being subjected to The Wizard of Oz” and “hundreds of thousands” of parents grew up reading John Carter and ERB. Clearly a huge advantage to Oz, but I wouldn’t underestimate the popularity of ERB in the sixties (I guess we might be talking about grandparents) . . . . when the books were available in every newstand, bookstore, and library. That does translate at least into hundreds of thousands . . . . but nothing like the impact of the annual Wizard of Oz screening every Thanksgiving in terms of brand awareness.

  • OZ is a typical Disney “family film”, designed to appeal to a wide audience. John Carter is not a family film and was not marketed that way. Oz is EXACTLY the kind of film that D*I*S*N*E*Y has been known for for four+ generations. Look at your poster again, then look at the posters for Snow White, Dumbo, even Witch Mountain and The Nutty Professor (original versions); they all share an aesthetic vibe.
    Raimi is a live action director. Stanton is not. Raimi know how to work within the studio system. Stanton did not. Oz is a half-way decent picture that, according to at least one critic (whom I know personally, do not always agree with but respect and understand his sensibilities) the (paraphrasing) kids can go home and watch the original Oz seamlessly after watching this one. JC is not and you can’t.

    Hundreds of thousands of parents grew up being subjected to The Wizard of Oz at least once a year during the Thanksgiving weekend for the past 50 years. Many of them probably want their own children to have that same ‘wow’ experience and are hoping that a new movie about Oz will allow them to deliver that to their kids.

    Hundreds (note the lack of “of thousands”) of parents grew up reading the Burroughs tales and some small percentage of them wanted their kids to have the same experience by taking them to the movies instead of handing them the books.

    Stupid parents.

  • Also, I note how much larger the Disney name is on the Oz poster than on John Carter’s. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least that they are more proud of this movie (which, honestly, I am excited for and am going to see tonight).

    Additionally, everything you rightly accuse Disney of not doing for JC in the online marketing department in your book, Disney has totally done for Oz. More active Twitter and Facebook feeds, even a “Temple Run” game app! “What might have been,” indeed…!

    Thanks for another interesting post.

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